Longtime readers of Twelve Mile Circle already know that I have a thing for lighthouses amongst numerous other counting-related quirks. I might have gone overboard on the recent trip to Cape Cod, however. That wasn’t my intent. It seemed as if lighthouses appeared every time I turned around, and the next thing I knew I’d photographed fourteen of them. In my defense it was a particularly lovely stretch of coastline, combining rocky shores, towering bluffs and lots of little towns that grew lighthouses in abundance. Lighthouses don’t appeal to everyone so readers should feel free to skip to the next article or simply scan through the pretty pictures and ignore the text if so inclined. I won’t take it personally.
Boston Light & Graves Light Station
I blamed it on my visit to Fort Revere Park in Hull where I noticed this wonderful alignment of the Boston Light (map) and the Graves Light Station (map) at the entrance to Boston Harbor. Boston was blessed with a wonderful natural harbor although it came at a price, an unfortunate array of dangerous navigational obstacles including islets, shoals and ledges. Even the most skilled navigators needed additional assistance to avoid shipwrecking disasters.
The Boston Light — in the foreground — was one of the earliest such structures built in the United States, first lit in 1783. It was also the last one automated, 1998, and actively staffed by US Coast Guard personnel. The website Lighthouse Friends described the Boston Light as the "ideal American Lighthouse" for its wonderful placement and appearance. The Graves Light Station on the Graves Shelf — in the background — was an added bonus from this particular vantage.
Duxbury Pier Lighthouse
I severely tested the telephoto capabilities on my camera with the Duxbury Pier Lighthouse in Plymouth Harbor (map). The lighthouse was so far away that the image seemed to resemble an Impressionist painting more than a photograph. I couldn’t imagine anyone living on the Duxbury light back when people used to do that, confined solely to a small room with a circular balcony around its perimeter. Nonetheless, someone needed to staff that light to protect mariners from the deadly shoal at Saquish Head. It must have required a special kind of character to willingly endure that level of confinement and isolation.
The local name for this lighthouse was the "Bug Light" although it didn’t appear to resemble a bug to me. It was also the first light built in a style that came to be known as the sparkplug design, a resemblance that seemed more appropriate.
I found myself with an entire day to explore Cape Cod National Seashore as I drove up to Provincetown. The Nauset Light stood above one of the most popular beaches within the seashore so I wondered if it might be crowded. I arrived at the lighthouse (map) at a huge parking lot with an unmanned toll gate, completely vacated, the reward once again for traveling slightly off-season.
This wasn’t the original location. The cliff below Nauset Light continued to erode until it imperiled its foundation. The Coast Guard didn’t plan to preserve it because Nauset Light wasn’t needed anymore. Local residents rallied and funded its relocation farther inland in 1996. That was a much better solution.
Three Sisters Lighthouses
The Three Sisters Lighthouses (map) were said to resemble three women in white dresses and black bonnets, and stood maybe another quarter-mile farther inland from Nauset Light so visiting was easy. The Three Sisters were older structures, having been replaced by Nauset in the 1920’s. They had also been moved farther away from the cliff as it eroded. A marker (photo) explained their history and the reason for such an unusual number of structures on a single spot.
These lights, which replaced brick towers, were part of a network along the treacherous and busy Cape Cod. Ships approaching the southern Cape saw the stationary beams of the twin Chatham Lighthouses. The Three Sisters’ triple light configuration told sailors that they had reached the Cape’s mid-point. Sailors knew they were nearing the Cape’s tip when they saw the single flashing beam of the Highland Light.
Eventually lighthouses were given distinctive flashing patterns so multiple towers were no longer necessary.
My timing guaranteed smaller crowds although there was a downside to that strategy. The Highland Lighthouse wouldn’t open for another week. I could still enjoy the grounds that surrounded it though (map). This was the tallest lighthouse on Cape Cod (66 feet / 20 metres) and continued to serve as an active navigational aid. Like some of the others, it had been moved away from a crumbling cliff in the 1990’s. Apparently one shouldn’t build too close to the eastern shore of Cape Cod.
Highland Lighthouse had one additional historical footnote: Henry David Thoreau, famed as the author of Walden, used to enjoy visiting here in the 1850’s and even wrote an article about his experiences.
Over this bare highland the wind has full sweep. Even in July it blows the wings over the heads of the young turkeys, which do not know enough to head against it; and in gales the doors and windows are blown in, and you must hold on to the light-house to prevent being blown into the Atlantic. They who merely keep out on the beach in a storm in the winter are sometimes rewarded by the Humane Society. If you would feel the full force of a tempest, take up your residence on the top of Mount Washington, or at the Highland Light in Truro.
Wood End Lighthouse
The Wood End Light (map) was the only site that involved any meaningful effort during my journey. I’d spied it from the top of the Pilgrim Monument the previous day. It looked like it might be feasible so I went for a walk early the next morning to see if I could reach it. I stepped carefully across the harbor breakwater, then onto the sand of Provincetown Spit and along a rugged path to the lighthouse itself. I never saw another person. I stopped for a few moments, took photos and walked back. The stroll lasted about an hour each way.
Wood End marked the southernmost point on the Cape Cod hook for approaching mariners. I didn’t make it to the very farthest eastern tip though, a place called Long Point that also featured a lighthouse. That was simply too far for this particular trip. Maybe next time.
Brant Point Light
We left Cape Cod and then headed offshore, first to the island of Nantucket. It was cold and foggy. We’d spent the afternoon at Cisco Brewers a few miles outside of town, bicycling there for an afternoon of live music and beer sampling, then loaded a growler onto a bike for our ride back to town. Somehow we thought it might be a good idea to wander out to Brant Point Lighthouse (map) later that evening. There might have been some alcohol involved. It wasn’t a particularly daunting walk, certainly much easier than my earlier trip to Wood End, just that wiser minds may have remained indoors near a fireplace or something on such a dreary evening.
Hyannis Harbor Lighthouse
I didn’t have much to add about the lighthouse at Hyannis Harbor (map). Apparently it was built around 1849 and it’s privately owned. We passed the light four separate times on ferry rides to and from Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard so I felt an obligation to take a photo.
I really went lighthouse crazy on Martha’s Vineyard. Sites were too far apart for bicycling so we rented a car for the day.
Three of the lights were stewarded by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum including the Edgartown Lighthouse (map). It was right on the edge of Edgartown, thus the name. The museum decorated the lighthouse for special occasions. Ribbons around lantern room during our trip marked Pink and Green weekend; a "celebration of Spring and Mother’s Day"
Gay Head Light
I will attempt to be the first site on the Intertubes to refrain from make a joke at the expense of Gay Head Light in Aquinnah (map). The weather had been wonderful all day except for this far western corner of Martha’s Vineyard. I could barely see the lighthouse. In fact I had to move much closer than I expected simply to take a photo. Unfortunately I couldn’t get any closer because Gay Head Light was in the process of being moved. Sound familiar? Here, just like many of the sites on Cape Cod, eroding cliffs threatened the very existence of an historic structure.
West Chop Light
Other lighthouses stood on Martha Vineyard’s northern shores near Vineyard Haven. The West Chop Light (map) was an active navigational aid. It also included a lighthouse keeper’s quarters that continued to serve as a home for people posted at the Menemsha Coast Guard Station located elsewhere on the island. Access was pretty limited for that reason.
Compare this to the image of Gay Head Light and notice the weather conditions. That was the stark difference between separate parts of the island on the same afternoon.
East Chop Light
However if there was a West Chop Light it made sense that there would also be an East Chop Light (map). That one was located within a small park overlooking the ocean. The lighthouse itself was closed at the time although we could relax on the benches along the bluff and enjoy the view.
Newport Harbor Light
Finally — and I am as relieved as the audience to get to the last one — I spotted a lighthouse in Newport, Rhode Island completely unexpectedly. This was the Newport Harbor Light, also sometimes called the Goat Island Light (map). It was built in 1842 and automated in 1963. I didn’t check on it much beyond noting how nice it looked sitting in the harbor.
It seemed like I was on the road just yesterday and here I was back out in the wilds once again. This time my wife and I were celebrating a round-numbered wedding anniversary so we headed up to coastal Massachusetts and Rhode Island. I’d been to Boston many times previously however I’d never traveled along the horseshoe of Cap Cod nor to the islands offshore nor to very much of Rhode Island other than the Interstate highways running across it on the way to other places for that matter.
Let’s begin another Twelve Mile Circle multiple-article travelogue by focusing on the seacoasts that approximated my route and then move on to other topics in later installments.
We flew into Boston and drove down to the South Shore community of Hull (map). This was one of the oldest towns in Massachusetts, founded in 1622 as a an outpost for the Plymouth Colony to trade with local native American tribes. I captured this image from Fort Revere Park, a place that served as a military garrison protecting Boston Harbor beginning with the Revolutionary War and lasting all the way through World War II. It seemed so quintessentially New England.
Plymouth was a must. Twelve Mile Circle often delves into history so I simply couldn’t skip this most hallowed of New England locations. The site fell along our route and I’d never been there before. I’ll talk all about the Pilgrim connection in a future installment. I’m fixated on seacoasts for the moment so I’ll stick with those. Plymouth had an awesome breakwater to protect its harbor which I guessed stretched about a half-mile (map). Naturally I had to walk to the very end of it along irregularly spaced granite blocks because that’s what one does when encountering a breakwater. There wasn’t anything particularly remarkable to be found at the end although that was hardly the point.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers described it as:
A 3,500-foot-long stone breakwater. This structure begins at a point north of the town wharf and extends easterly from the shore for 1,400 feet, then turns southeasterly, parallel to the waterfront, for 2,100 feet.
My rough estimate of distance seemed to be pretty close to the mark.
Then we proceeded out along Cape Cod, eventually making it all the way to the tip at Provincetown (map). Much of the shoreline was protected within Cape Cod National Seashore. The cape was created by glaciers as noted by the U.S. Geological Survey.
The geologic history of Cape Cod mostly involves the advance and retreat of the last continental ice sheet (named the Laurentide after the Laurentian region of Canada where it first formed) and the rise in sea level that followed the retreat of the ice sheet. On Cape Cod, these events occurred within the last 25,000 years… Sometime after 23,000 years ago, the glacier reached its maximum advance… The ice sheet was characterized by lobes that occupied large basins in the bedrock surface. These lobes were responsible for the location and overall shape of Cape Cod and the islands.
It also created awesome sandy cliffs and dunes, and amazing beaches.
I’m sure Nantucket had some incredible ocean vistas (map). However most of our stay on the island coincided with the arrival of an oppressively thick fog. The bank seemed to sit directly atop Nantucket, permanently affixed, perfectly clear on the ferryboat ride out to the island and perfectly clear once we left. Nantucket had been dubbed the Gray Lady by mariners of yore because of the fog that often shrouded the island. We experienced the Gray Lady in all of her glory. That was fine, actually. It created a mysterious almost haunting atmosphere as we explored weathered cobblestone streets.
Martha’s Vineyard offered considerably more sunshine to the point where it was downright hot during our brief visit at least for most of the island. The far western edge with its spectacular cliffs was enveloped by clouds and a bitterly cold wind, so oddly disconnected with conditions found elsewhere on the island given the small geographic distance. Those photos didn’t turn out well although there were still plenty of sunny scenes like the one I selected.
It was also nice to visit a place with an officially recognized possessive apostrophe.
We finished our whirlwind tour in Newport, Rhode Island (map). The best coastline in town could be found along its famed Cliff Walk. This path was established as a National Recreation Trail, open to the public. Awesome scenes of ocean waves crashing on rocks far down below the cliff framed one side of the trail. Unbelievably huge mansions lined the other side. These homes were constructed primarily during the Guilded Age of the late 19th Century by some of the biggest names of legendary fortunes like Vanderbilt and Astor. Many of these American castles can be toured as museums.
The final day, like the end of all great adventures, was bittersweet. Nobody wanted to stop and yet we all had our lives to get back to and our responsibilities awaiting us that needed attention the next day. Most of the day’s ride would fly noticeably downhill. All of the gradual elevation we’d earned over many strenuous hours would come back to us in a 23-mile joyride into Cumberland. All we had to do was reach the final crest a few miles farther down the path. Mother Nature envisioned one more little trick. Prevailing winds cranked up to a sustained 20 mph with gusts even higher, and blew from the opposite direction than usual. Heading out of Meyersdale going uphill with a strong headwind after riding so many miles seemed unusually cruel.
Eastern Continental Divide
Which Way Will the Water Flow?
A little wind couldn’t stop us though. It felt like conditions that I’d biked through all winter long so I pushed forward to the highest point along the trail, the Eastern Continental Divide (map), and waited for my companions. Loyal followers of Twelve Mile Circle will understand my excitement. This was a genuine geo-oddity of some significance. Water poured directly atop the divide would roll either towards the Gulf of Mexico or towards the Atlantic Ocean; two very different locations determined solely by the simple fate of how it teetered along a razor-thin line. I sacrificed a small stream to the Geography Gods from my water bottle and wondered about the journey it would take. Actually it probably evaporated on the spot although I didn’t want to spoil my little fantasy moment.
The keepers of the GAP Trail obviously understood the importance of the Divide too. The small tunnel at this pivotal spot included an elevation map (photo) as well as several murals outlining the history of the area and the trail.
Now the well-deserved downhill sprint could begin.
Big Savage Tunnel
Big Savage Tunnel
Remember my long list of worries during the planning? The Big Savage Tunnel (map) was right near the top. I didn’t have a fear of tunnels even though this one was particularly long, and the longest on the trail at 3,300 feet (one kilometre). Rather I feared it might be closed. There wouldn’t be an easy detour if its imposing steel doors were padlocked.
Its restoration took two years and $12 million so the Allegheny Trail Alliance wasn’t in any hurry to go through the trouble again. They closed the tunnel every winter to prevent ice damage. The tunnel would open again in early April or "sometime" in April or definitely before May, according to various websites I consulted. We’d had a particularly cold winter and I figured it might delay the schedule. I watched the trail alerts anxiously until I saw an announcement saying it had opened for the season on April 3, 2015; two weeks before we would need it. I could relax.
The tunnel was in great shape, well lighted and a smooth ride.
Mason & Dixon Line
Mason & Dixon Line
Another fascinating geographic division appeared just after we passed the landmark tunnel, the renowned Mason & Dixon Line (map). Twelve Mile Circle readers should be well acquainted with the line so I won’t go into great detail (e.g., surveyed by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon circa 1763-1767, the traditional dividing line between north and south in the United States, the state boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland). For me, it provided a great opportunity to take a bunch of photographs of our bicycles in two states at the same time. Shouldn’t bikes get a little geo-oddity love too?
It was bound to occur. Oddly the first and only bit of misfortune during our entire trip happened a mere fourteen miles from our goal. One of our group ran over a twig at the exact same time as a gear shift. A twig hitting at that vulnerable point must have acted as a lever, twisting the chain and locking the pedals. Even so we were lucky in adversity. This happened right before the Frostburg trailhead. We walked our bikes into town, had lunch, and made arrangements for a bicycle shop in nearby Cumberland to pick up the bike for repair while dropping-off a rental for the remaining few miles. We lost very little time, thankful that it hadn’t happened on an earlier day several miles from the nearest town.
Finishing the GAP
Mile 0 in Cumberland, Maryland
On the Maryland side, the trail followed active tracks of the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad. Active, yes, although not very frequent. The WMSR was a weekend excursion line operating only during the warmer months. I would have been overjoyed to see a vintage steam engine chugging up the mountain directly next to the bike trail. I’m not sure I’d have felt the same way if I’d been in the Brush Tunnel at the time — bikes and trains share the same tunnel (photo) — although seeing an antique train in general would have been nice. Unfortunately the first train of the season wouldn’t run for another couple of weeks.
I pedaled past the town of Mount Savage (photo) which I mentioned in an earlier article, Savages. It was pretty enough sitting way down in the valley although we were on a mission at that point, nearly finished and I kept going. One last attraction did entice us to stop, the Bone Cave only four miles from our destination. Workers constructing a railroad cut stumbled upon the cave in 1912. They found fossilized bones from Pleistocene-era animals dating back 200,000 years. Fossils included cave bears, saber-toothed tigers, mastodons and wolverines, some forty different species according to a marker placed at the entrance.
Finally the surface turned from gravel to asphalt, an oddly quiet situation after riding on rougher road for most of the last four days. People began to appear on the trail in abundance for the first time; walkers, joggers and recreational bikers. This offered another tantalizing clue that civilization couldn’t be too far ahead. Cumberland appeared on the horizon and we rolled into town for our final mile. The trail ended at Canal Place, back where we’d caught our shuttle four days earlier. The countdown to Mile 0 finally ended. We offered congratulations to each other, took plenty of photos as evidence and headed towards our cars. Two hours later I was back home, still feeling great and wondering when I might be able to do something like that again.
The Great Allegheny Passage articles: